Volunteers work to save endangered species (w/video)

Sara  Sneath By Sara Sneath

June 28, 2014 at 1:28 a.m.

Ray Kirkwood, left, and Mike Burnett of the Mid-Coast Texas Master Naturalists patrol the beach of Matagorda Island looking for female turtle tracks that will lead them to a nest.

Ray Kirkwood, left, and Mike Burnett of the Mid-Coast Texas Master Naturalists patrol the beach of Matagorda Island looking for female turtle tracks that will lead them to a nest.

MATAGORDA ISLAND - A retired physicist and a NASA-contracted calibration technician drive up and down the beach of the Texas Gulf Coast barrier island in an all-terrain vehicle, looking for endangered sea turtles and sea turtle nests.

To pass the time, the men quiz each other on the names of birds and point out sharks catching fish in the surf.

The men drive past a one-armed, headless mannequin adorned in a white, beaded necklace, the remaining arm positioned in the air, as if hailing a taxi. The mannequin marks the spot where the retired calibration technician found a nest earlier in the sea turtle's nesting season. Other patrollers built the makeshift shrine from items washed up on the beach.

The effort to save Kemp's ridley sea turtle eggs on Matagorda Island begins not in a sterile lab with biologists but on a beach with a mixed pot of dedicated volunteers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Aransas National Wildlife Refuge once provided a boat to take volunteers to the island, all-terrain vehicles for patrols, fuel, a house to stay on the island and a staff member to stay with them. This year, the refuge was only able to provide the house.

Because of budget cuts, the refuge no longer has the money to offer the volunteers on Matagorda Island financial support. As a result, this year marks the first time the Aransas refuge has issued turtle patrol volunteers a special use permit to conduct the patrols on the island on their own.

"For years, we've been training on how to find the nests. For years, we've been training on how to handle a turtle if we find one on the nest, which we do sometimes. And recently, we've been trained on how to excavate the eggs from the nests and get them transported. We really don't need someone to sit with us out there. We can do it on our own," said Ray Kirkwood, Matagorda Island sea turtle patrol coordinator.

Patrols to find nesting sea turtles and sea turtle nests, which have about 100 eggs each, are carried out by volunteers across Texas Gulf beaches from April to July, when Kemp's ridley sea turtles are known to be nesting. Most nests are excavated and sent to Padre Island to incubate. Protected nests have about an 85 percent hatching success rate. In the wild, where predators can dig up the sea turtle nests, the nests have a maximum hatch rate of about 60 percent.

But the sea turtles' fight for survival does not end at the nest, said Donna Shaver, chief of the National Park Service's Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at the Padre Island National Seashore. While the hatchlings at Padre Island are protected all the way to the water, baby turtles in the wild must endure birds, crabs and other predators on their journey from nest to water.

Kirkwood, a retired physicist, has been patrolling Matagorda Island for sea turtles for 11 years. During that time, he's developed a keen eye for tracks that look something like a heavy bag dragged across the sand, with alternating checkmarks on either side. He's also developed a deep but friendly competition with his patrolling partner, Mike Burnett, a retired NASA-contracted calibration technician.

"There's always a competition. It's just a fun thing. He trained me. He was my mentor when I first started off. He's a peer now. Still, I have a lot of respect for him," Burnett said.

Volunteers have been rotating on and off Matagorda Island to conduct patrols since mid-May. The start date for the patrols was delayed a few weeks after oil from a 168,000-gallon spill in Galveston Bay washed up on the island in late March and took about a month to clean up.

"We were delayed by weeks getting started. And maybe, maybe because of that we missed a nest or two, but so far this year, we've found three nests, and that's more than we found the last two years," Kirkwood said.

Four volunteers stay on the island at a time. They patrol from sunup to sundown, as Kemp's ridleys mostly nest during the day. With two all-terrain vehicles, the volunteers are able to cover about 30 miles of shoreline on the 38-mile island about four times throughout the day.

"We think we are finding all the turtle tracks, with the possible exception that the beach this year has been covered in an ungodly amount of sargassum. And occasionally, the Kemp's ridley sea turtle's been known to dig a nest in the sargassum, and if she does, then it's extremely difficult to find that nest. Maybe we missed one of those. I don't know. But we're feeling really good about this year, and we think that this is the way to go," Kirkwood said.

Funding for the patrols this year and the volunteers who conduct them came from the Mid-Coast Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists and Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges. Kirkwood estimates the fuel, telephone boosters and safety equipment needed to conduct the patrols will cost the group about $5,000. But the group won't fully know the annual cost of patrolling the island until it has paid for it for a year.

The Matagorda Island patrol effort has always been a bit of an outlier. The patrols were not started by a researcher but by a Texas Master Naturalist volunteer who, knowing sea turtle nests were found north and south of the island, believed he could find them on the island as well. The volunteer, John Beree, persuaded the Aransas refuge to allow him and other volunteers to come out on the island, which can only be accessed by boat, with a maintenance crew in 2003.

The first Kemp's ridley sea turtle nest was found on the island in 2005.

Beree's passion for finding sea turtles' nests on the island infected other volunteers. Now, volunteers become so excited to find nests that they jump up and down; they whoop and retell the stories in fast-paced voices, and they build shrines at the sites where nests are discovered.

These volunteers learned the message of why it's necessary to fight for the critically endangered sea turtle not in a classroom but on a seaweed-covered beach of a Gulf barrier island.

With continued state and federal budget cuts to the programs that teach people about the environment, it's likely the volunteers on Matagorda Island are no longer the exception but the new rule.

"We're doing important work as far as locating endangered species," Burnett said, "but it's also really fun stuff."



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